Marvel’s Epic Collection series gathers a key era in Avengers history with The Avengers/Defenders War.
The manipulations of villains Dormammu and Loki pitted the titular hero teams against one another in a quest for a power object that could restore petrified hero the Black Knight. The team also struggled against the grand schemes of the criminal cartel Zodiac, which propelled the heroes to Vietnam on the trail of potential info about the past of their mysterious guest Mantis. Mantis caused additional drama, once her romance with reformed villain-turned-Avenger Swordsman went sour and she made a play for the Vision, whose romance with the Scarlet Witch had hit a rocky patch. The Avengers allied with their friend Captain Marvel for their first significant clash with uber-villain Thanos. Other familiar foes included Ultron, the Collector, Klaw and Solarr. The appearance of World War II hero the Whizzer suggested a possible familial tie with the Scarlet Witch and forced the team to deal with Whizzer’s powerful, badly deformed son Nuklo. The Avengers and Fantastic Four attended the wedding of Quicksilver and Crystal at the Great Refuge of the Inhumans, which nearly turned deadly. Scarlet Witch and her new mystic instructor Agatha Harkness faced off with a deformed mystic desperate to harvest their souls. Finally, a mysterious newborn star appeared over Avengers Mansion, for reasons the team didn’t yet understand, but which attracted the notice of their old foe Kang.
This installment of the Epic Collection series captures a key story in the Avengers pantheon and provides the run-up to one of the book’s most famous sagas. Writer Steve Englehart navigated the book into modern waters, focused on a strong core cast of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Black Panther, Swordsman and Mantis. Englehart played the characters off one another in sly ways, stoking interpersonal tensions and jealousies that married a compelling layer of soapy drama to the superhero action. He also firmly placed the team at the center of the Marvel Universe, with a wide array of guest stars popping up.
While mega-crossovers between books are commonplace today, in the early ’70s such events weren’t as common and never this long, which makes The Avengers/Defenders War a landmark, a turning point in how such stories were packaged and marketed, running for three months in both books. But more than breaking new business ground, Englehart embraced long-term plotting and essayed some daring content. Mantis was a bold creation, an overtly sexual character of mixed European/Vietnamese heritage at a time when the Vietnam War was an open sore for the American public. Englehart effectively used the divisive Mantis as a dramatic catalyst that helped shape his big ideas, blazing the path toward his gonzo masterpiece, The Celestial Madonna Saga. In between, he made strong use of a variety of familiar villains and mined some genuine emotional depth from his large, shifting cast. Englehart is regarded as a key shaper of the Avengers franchise for good reason and these stories show off the sophistication of his plotting, even as the writer clearly chafed against the bombastic narrative conventions of the genre at the time.
The art came from a variety of 1970s Marvel staples, including Bob Brown, the Buscema brothers, Dave Cockrum, Rich Buckler and Don Heck. It was classic, clean and straightforward, keeping the action moving at a brisk pace, even if it seemed quaint compared to some of the more daring, experimental work of Marvel’s young guns of the period. That newer approach is typified by the Captain Marvel issue included in the collection, showcasing the dazzling, innovative work of the young Jim Starlin. The more traditional approach seemed less impressive contrasted with Starlin’s unfettered imagination, but its merits shouldn’t be discounted, especially the issues with Cockrum as inker (coming off his breakout on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes and just before ascending to the A List with the re-launch of Uncanny X-Men). Brown was the principal penciler and acquitted himself admirably overall. The one aspect that might give modern audiences pause is the coloring choices for the Southeast Asian natives that appeared in several issues, a gaudy yellow/orange mix that was an echo of a less enlightened former era.
For any fans interested in a crucial era of the original series, The Avengers/Defenders War is a must read.